Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (A One and a Two)

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Yi Yi (A
One And a Two)
by Edward Yang

The gatekeepers he was referring
to are the people who determine which foreign-language films reach the general
public: their number includes film distributors and, in a slightly more remote
sense, festival programmers. Trusting these folk–that is, believing that
every year they unfailingly winnow out the best foreign films and set them on
a course for U.S. art houses–is something that many cinephiles perhaps
do without giving it much thought, and others do because they really have no
alternative. But I was astonished to think any critic with a brain and access
to international festivals would do it, because my experience has taught me
just the opposite. When I set about assembling a "10 best" list for
the 1990s, I was dismayed but unsurprised to see how many of the outstanding
foreign films had passed the decade with little or no access to American filmgoers.

Chief among those unseen
masterpieces, Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s astonishing, four-hour teens-in-turmoil
epic A Brighter Summer Day (1991) not only eluded the nets of American
distributors, it was also passed over by the Cannes and New York film festivals,
a blunder that looked ever more embarrassing as the film’s critical reputation
built throughout the decade. Recently I asked a Cannes programmer who was on
duty at the time how the oversight could have happened. With a frown, he said,
"Festivals make mistakes." (Here insert history’s riposte: "No

Still, my point here is
not to bash the gatekeepers, but rather to lament that various factors–some
beyond their control, some not–conspired to keep the New Taiwanese Cinema
off the cultural radar of American filmgoers during the period of its rise and
greatest fecundity, roughly the mid-80s to the mid-90s. As a result, the very
belated commercial appearance (last year) of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s oeuvre,
and the arrival this week of Yang’s Cannes triumph Yi Yi (A One and
a Two)
, are welcome events that nonetheless suffer from distortions of perspective
that invariably accompany a lack of context.

One example: discussing
foreign films in the Times a few weeks back, Stephen Holden opined that
"most critics would agree" that the current cinemas of Taiwan, Iran,
Spain, China, Denmark and France are "flourishing artistically." I’m
not sure how many critics would actually agree with that preposterous
statement, but those who do should have their passports renewed. Clearly, "flourishing
artistically" applies only, if at all, to Iran, a special case where an
authoritarian regime has kept out virtually all foreign films while shrewdly
supporting its own filmmakers’ efforts at overseas success. The other cinemas
Holden mentioned are all in advanced stages of decay or on government life-support.

According to the Cannes
programmer mentioned above, speaking a month ago in Telluride, Taiwan’s
cinema is now "virtually dead." The island’s three internationally
lauded auteurs, Yang, Hou and Tsai Ming-liang, make their films, in effect,
for export, with funds that mostly come from Japan and Europe. That’s worth
bearing in mind by anyone–critics included–who might risk mistaking
Hou’s work or Yi Yi as proofs of a currently vital national cinema.

The vitality belongs to
the auteurs, whose relationship to their national cultures grows more interestingly
problematic as their conditions of production become more transnational. In
this sense, Hou and Yang stand in sharp contrast to each other. Hou’s films
are fastidiously, self-consciously "Chinese" in setting, subjects
and style, and usually take place in the past. Yang’s films, generally
set in the present (the 60s-set Brighter Summer Day is an exception),
display a style that might be called international-modernist, and depict a cosmopolitan
Taiwan that’s overwashed with influences from Japan, the U.S. and Europe.

Amusingly, much as certain
precious Western cinephiles once embraced Ozu and Mizoguchi as more "Japanese"
than Kurosawa, Hou now gets championed in certain quarters as more culturally
authentic than Yang. Yet Yang’s cinematic world, in which Taiwanese companies
ape Japanese high-tech prototypes and American capitalism drives everything,
surely is more authentic to the experience of anyone who steps off a plane in
Taipei; it simply doesn’t foreground or make a fuss over its "Chineseness."

In fact, local cultural
identity seems to mean less to Yang now than ever before. In Telluride I tried
to probe him about how Yi Yi comments on Taiwan’s present realities.
He demurred when I mentioned Taiwan, saying that the more he has traveled of
late, the more it has struck him that the crucial divide now isn’t between
nations, the U.S. and China, say, but between big international metropolises
and everywhere else.

Taipei and New York are
more like each other than New York is like the American hinterlands, he mused.
People who live in these cities increasingly belong to the same culture, and
it’s not a national or traditional culture. It’s a global urban culture.
Thus, says Yang, he doesn’t make Taiwanese (much less "Chinese")
films, because he doesn’t really understand or inhabit the parts of Taiwan
beyond its capital. He makes Taipei films, films set in a city that more and
more resembles every other big, flashing, sleepless city.

This outlook has two noteworthy
consequences. First, and not incidentally, it provides Yang’s films (Yi
especially) with a significant correlation between the cultures they
depict and the cultures that finance and consume them; unlike Hou’s films,
which give Westerners arty repesentations of an exotic Other, Yang’s unfold
and offer fascinating insights into the prosaic, global here and now. Second,
the fading of local culture means that culture itself recedes as a central question,
leaving Yang to focus on the individual life, the lone city-citizen and his
immediate kin.

It’s worth stressing
that a long intellectual itinerary has led Yang to the felicities of Yi Yi,
because one of the film’s virtues is a deceptive conventionality that can
make it seem a lot less complex and hard-won than it is. Running three hours
yet so steadily engrossing that its end arrives before you want it to, Yang’s
story chronicles the ups and downs of an ordinary Taipei family (mom, dad, sis,
kid bro, plus assorted relatives) as its members endure everything from business
challenges, injury, first love and possible infidelity to religious crisis and
the encroachment of mortality.

Alternately funny and poignant,
the film sometimes dances alarmingly close to the lures of melodrama and sentimentality,
yet it emerges as unself-consciously beautiful, humane and heartwarming in a
way few movies manage without collapsing into sappiness. At the same time, Yi
easily repays multiple viewings because its most impressive accomplishments
transpire far beneath its ingratiating, carefully drawn surface.

With a flurry of comic lyricism,
the tale opens at a wedding where 40ish paterfamilias N.J. (Wu Nien-Jen) encounters
his long-unseen first love in an elevator and notices that there’s still
a spark between them. She’s a musician who’s been living in America,
but the fact that his company is trying to forge a deal with a Tokyo concern
gives N.J. the chance, as the story unfolds, to go to off to Japan for a few
days with his old flame and consider starting anew.

The other members of N.J.’s
family eventually have their own Rubicons to cross. While his wife Min-Min (Elaine
Jin) is distracted to the point of seeking the spiritual guidance of a guru,
daughter Li Li (Adrian Lin) gradually develops a crush on a boy who turns
out to be seriously unhinged. Meanwhile, seven-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan
Chang) explores the world through the lens of his own camera and a mind that
can’t help turning every experience into a philosophical quandary.

Various other relatives
occupy the comedy-drama’s periphery, and a crucial one gives the story
its dead-silent center. Rendered comatose by an accident, Min-Min’s elderly
mother is returned home with doctor’s instructions that the family members
talk to her frequently to stimulate her senses. What does one say to an old
woman who shows no signs of consciousness? The dilemma adds to existential puzzlements
faced by four people who not only don’t speak much to each other but don’t
seem especially adept at facing themselves. To talk to Granny, each must construct
a narrative that he or she can listen to and live with.

The film’s mastery,
however, lies far less in its plot or characters than in the subtlety of its
design and execution. Yang fortunately has never fallen prey to Hou’s brand
of hyperformalism, but that’s not to say that form doesn’t carry much
of the meaning in his films; it merely means that he’s more delicate about
it. In interviews he has said that he wanted to reflect on the different ages
of a person’s life, but rather than following one character through many
years, he created different characters representing the whole spectrum of age.
That’s almost like symbolic speech signaling the motives that inform the
film at every level: balance, wholeness and a perspective that emphasizes the
long view of individual, family and social life.

Yi Yi, in fact, is
a supremely humane and wonderfully accessible movie that could equally be appreciated
on an almost abstract level. The ways that Yang balances every opposite (young/old,
happy/sad, individual/family, love/disappointment, etc., etc.) are quite amazing
in their significant thoroughness, just as his skill in interweaving innumerable
plot strands and moods without calling attention to their seamlessness recalls
that, before turning to filmmaking, he was an engineer who considered going
into architecture. Beyond that, there’s the sheer skill and truthfulness
he’s able to conjure in scene after scene, moment after moment, of the
film’s unfurling.

A Brighter Summer Day
is, I think, still the masterpiece Yang is most likely to be remembered
for. Made when he was in his 40s, it has the jagged energies and lunging ambitions
of an artist still gripped by the demons of his youth but suddenly in the full
possession of his own powers. Yi Yi is a more relaxed and mellow film,
a contemplative work by an artist who’s crossed the threshold of 50 and
realized that he has achieved a measure of contentment and philosophic perspective.
Both films, though, are similar in feeling deeply personal, which separates
them from Yang’s estimable but more intellectual other features.

Yi Yi, the seventh
of Yang’s features yet the first to make it into the U.S. marketplace,
will no doubt come as a startling surprise to some viewers. "Where has
this terrific filmmaker been hiding?" people will wonder. The answer, of
course, is not so much in Taiwan as on the other side of the gatekeepers.